Shots interview Pep Bosch
David Knight interviews the charismatic director
Interview taken from Shots issue 165.
Beneath Pep Bosch’s charming, self-effacing exterior is a fierce dedication to his work and a determination to make us see the world according to his delightfully askew vision.
With warm, darkly humorous films that tend to champion the underdog, Bosch has made a niche for himself across a host of multinational brands. Now co-director of his own company and with plans for even more ambitious projects, he talks to David Knight
In his 20-years-or-so directing career, Pep Bosch has made commercials all over the world – from his native Spain to Sweden, the US to Australia. But as he admits, it’s never quite happened for him in the UK. And he thinks he knows why.
It goes back to the late 90s, the era of Cool Britannia and all that. He’d just made his international breakthrough as a director with Burials, an epic ad for Spanish TV platform Via Digital. It featured different kinds of interments – from Indian funeral pyres to burials at sea – of old-style TVs. Bosch, 29 and eager to strike out into the world of advertising, was featured in the New Talent section of shots. “It was beautiful,” he remembers. “Suddenly there was a world of possibilities.”
Soon afterwards, he became the first director signed to Stink – then an offshoot of Blink Productions. He started getting scripts from London ad agencies. The problem was, he’d only just started learning English. And he was now having to participate in conference calls with British ad creatives. “It was a nightmare, very painful,” he recalls. “There were calls where the agency would say: ‘Yeah, we like all colours except blue.’ And then I’d say: ‘Ok, let’s make it blue!’ I misunderstood everything, and they didn’t understand me at all.”
A winning combination of heart and humour
Whether on conference calls or in person (including dealing with London cab drivers) Bosch’s linguistic calamities put a spanner in the works. London’s ad creatives turned out to be an unforgiving bunch (like the cab drivers). Luckily, things went far better in other places where they use English as a working language: “In Sweden, I asked them why they gave me a job. They said it was ‘because your English is so funny.’”
Nearly two decades later, on a brief trip to London from his home in Barcelona, Pep Bosch’s English is good enough, and he is self-deprecating enough, to tell anecdotes mocking his hapless younger self. This feels entirely appropriate coming from a director who often demonstrates a natural affinity with the underdog and who tells stories with a combination of quirky, sometimes rueful comedy. The charm and warmth of his films are reflected in the man himself.
In his long commercial career, Bosch has made ads for a host of multinational brands including VW, Audi, Ikea and Volvo, and plenty more besides (including in Spain, El Corte Inglés and the Spanish Lottery). The work has generally been regarded as leftfield – even his car commercials – and in recent times he has excelled at creating slightly eccentric, off-kilter versions of reality in order to frame his storytelling. As in Goth Girl, one of his acclaimed spots for German DIY store Hornbach, the eponymous girl in black suffers for her outsider status in a bland yet spiteful small town America, until her sympathetic father finally shows solidarity with her by painting their house in Addams Family black.
In his Spanish Ikea ad, Chair, an old man who finds his daily spot on a park bench taken buys an Ikea foldup chair which then inspires him to take it elsewhere, and eventually, all over the world on a life-changing global adventure. And in Light Bulb for Spanish department store El Corte Inglés, a clumsy little boy is transformed when he finds a beautiful lightbulb, to the amazement of his wise old granddad – then he uses his new powers (and his bulb) to save Christmas.
In these and others, Bosch’s commercials contain heart, wit and brains – and moments of surrealism – usually delivered in an understated narrative style that makes him such a distinctive voice. It’s a style he has fashioned through years of experience, but also through a fierce dedication to his craft. Beneath his charm and self-deprecating wit, there is Bosch’s inner steel, a determination to impose his own vision. He writes his own treatments and draws his own storyboards. It is his main opportunity, he says, to have “maximum expression” on the idea behind the commercial. “Good scripts do exist, but they are few,” he says. “So when it’s possible to do so, I try to improve them and, somehow, make them unique. I like evolving scripts, and ultimately I have this need to surprise – even astonish.”
Bosch abhors bland ‘aspirational’ advertising that shuns individuality. And it’s fair to say that his approach has been more readily embraced by some agencies more than others. At different stages of his career he has developed strong relationships with certain companies – DDB Barcelona, Y&R Chicago, SCPF Barcelona and Heimat in Berlin – who have bought into his methodology, his meticulous preparation – and his passion, because it seems there isn’t much about the commercial production process that he doesn’t love. “This is something you don’t only do with the agency but also with the client, the team that’s working on it, and you make something out of nothing,” he says. “What was just an idea becomes a reality that didn’t exist before, and that’s exhilarating.”
Even if the end result can look like a great jumble of ideas, he says the clients “always know what they are going to get. If I surprise someone, they weren’t paying attention during the process.” Then once the all-important pre-production meeting is over with, he can really enjoy himself. “For me, shooting is the most enjoyable part of the whole process – all downhill,” he declares. “As far as I’m concerned I’m paid to do the PPM. But I should pay for what comes next.”
Neorealism and karaoke film school
Bosch grew up in Arenys de Mar, near Barcelona, and was regarded as a science scholar at school, until he took a class in art and design and became enraptured by graphic design. He then spent a few months studying the subject in Barcelona, discovering the American designer Bob Gill and embracing his philosophy: ‘Forget all the rules that they taught you’. He went on to study photography and film, while also working in a toy factory, where, in an interesting parallel to his future career, his job was to turn the ideas of games inventors into workable board games. “At the toy factory I had to translate impossible projects into graphic solutions. Somehow it’s something that I still do,” he confirms.
His first filmmaking experience came in the 80s, on a trip to Italy to visit a girlfriend, where he met the neorealist director Ermanno Olmi, who was supervising a Mass-Observation-style documentary project there. Bosch became involved in a small way, shooting and editing footage. It also made a big impact upon him, the way small stories, such as documenting the life and history of a barbershop, could have bigger implications. “What that experience told me was that you can really talk about all universal matters with a very few elements.”
The experience led to his first real filmmaking job, in Spain, working for Japanese company Pioneer making karaoke films for the Spanish market. It gave Bosch both the freedom and responsibility to shoot his own ideas, on 16mm – one 10-minute roll per song. Armed with a boxful of secondhand clothes – and usually recruiting family members to help – he would create films in all kinds of styles, from Buster Keaton-style slapstick to drama, experimenting with techniques. “It was too late for me to go film school, so this was my film school,” he says.
This was also the period when MTV Europe was launched and those iconic Levi’s ads began emerging from BBH in London. “I was used to watching shitty commercials on TV and then I saw those and I was astonished,” he says. “That was the moment I realised that I’d love to do that.” With a reel pulled together from his karaoke films, spec ads and old graphic design work, it took him a couple of years to make the breakthrough. But once he made his first commercial, with a film noir-style ad for Spanish despatch company SEUR, he was off and running. The Via Digital ad came a year or so later.
The importance of always telling the truth
Despite the UK remaining mostly immune to his charms (although he has since made an ad for BBH, for Vigorsol), the USA welcomed him. (“They would actually apologise for my bad English!” quips Bosch). By the early Noughties he was working regularly in America, in particular directing a long series of entertaining ads for DIY chain The Great Indoors for Y&R Chicago, in which people attempt to redecorate places that are not their own homes, like hotel rooms and neighbour’s houses. It was an important stage towards developing his own distinctive directing style. “It was mostly simple situation comedy in the States,” he says. “Not so much storytelling, more absurd. But I had come from a classic way of explaining things and this was about finding new characters and new situations.”
Bosch considered moving to America to further his career. Instead, for family reasons, he stayed in Barcelona, and then shifted his attention back to Europe for work. He was already busy in Spain, finding himself a popular director of car commercials, for VW, Audi and BMW, among others, when, he says, in terms of advertising creativity, “Spain was having a special moment.” Amnesia, his ad for DDB Barcelona, in which an amnesiac believes he owns a Golf GTi, won gold at Cannes; Babysitter for Audi won silver.
Bosch started to develop good relationships with Leo Burnett Warsaw, which became a hub of creativity in the mid- Noughties, and then with Guido Heffels, creative director at Heimat in Berlin, with whom he has worked on acclaimed campaigns for Hornbach and German mobile outfit Fonic. In the Fonic script for The Man Who Always Tells The Truth, he found the title to his liking, if nothing else. So he created a magic realist backstory about the eponymous truth-teller as an eccentric reluctant guru, who sits in trees and rides a bike with no handlebars. And the agency went for it.
“Sometimes I get a script from an agency and I rewrite it and they get angry,” he says. “In this case, for Fonic, it was another script, about a guy walking on the street with his lie detector. I told them the story and they said: ‘We like it a lot.’” He’s also made three Hornbach ads to date, beginning with Start, about a village where everything has fallen into terrible disrepair because the residents refuse to ever take their hands out of their pockets. His most recent is the thought-provoking A Job To Be Done, an unusually allegorical commercial in which builders from all over the world attempt to build a house using their own individual styles. The house eventually collapses – then they start all over again.
He has also developed a good relationship with SCPF Barcelona, for whom he made the ads for Ikea and El Corte Inglés. In the case of Lightbulb – his most recent film – he says that although he is “not the Christmas type”, his big contribution to the original script was again to provide a backstory for the small boy, and to stress that he had to make a sacrifice in order to save Christmas. “If you want a character experiencing something at the end that’s important for him, you have to lay the foundations for that,” he explains.
In the modern business of making commercials, with the open-endedness that online advertising allows, he is certain that there is more need for this additional detail than ever.
“Sometimes clients ask me: ‘How are we going to grab the viewer’s attention from the beginning?’ I say: ‘If you have a special way to look at reality, and also the way you choose your character. Have a vision that’s different from everything else.’ I think that’s becoming needed more and more.”
These days anything is possible
Bosch has now launched his own company in Barcelona, along with producers Esther de Udaeta and Ernest Gual. It’s called Albert and he says it will offer more flexibility for a changing world. They’re signing directors and talking to writers with plans to generate their own longer-form projects, both in documentary and in fiction. “It’s not just a matter of looking at classic advertising types. We want people with different skillsets.” Now 48, Bosch naturally wants to venture into other fields, but his heart still remains firmly with commercials. “Of course I’d like to do slightly different things. But somehow I feel that advertising is becoming more emotional.I feel very comfortable with that.” And now that his English has improved, will he be aiming to finally crack the British market? “Anything is possible,” he grins. “I think a lot of advertising feels like it wants to be invisible, filling the space with the logo and not saying anything. And then there are the brands and agencies who really want to communicate. That’s the space where I like to work.”